The premiere of Charles Gounod’s La Nonne Sanglante (The Bleeding Nun) flopped so hard as to precipitate the ouster of the director of the Paris Opéra, whose successor let it be known that the company would no longer tolerate pareilles ordures—“such rubbish.” A century and a half later, this rarest of revivals comes from the Opéra Comique, a scarcely less historic Parisian institution, though one of less snooty pretensions. As resurrected in 2018, the Gothic shocker falls squarely under the heading of guilty pleasures, briskly delivered.
If the spine-chilling ghost story does not rise to the standard of Gounod’s imperishable Faust, which premiered five years later, it’s still a corker. During the overture, clueless and unprepared, we witness the savage murder of a woman in white amid mayhem meted out by fully clothed warriors as ferocious as Pollaiuolo’s in the iconic Battle of the Nudes. As the main action gets underway, we meet our hero Rodolphe, whose fate—like that of Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake—is to pledge his faith to a diabolical double of his beloved. Of course, there’s hell to pay.
A preposterous premise? Not to the Romantics, who loved the kind of twists in which Eugène Scribe and Germain Delavigne’s libretto abounds. Eight composers, among them Auber and Verdi, gave the script a look. Berlioz, that devotee of the macabre, went so far as to compose at least an entire act. When the project finally landed with Gounod, its eccentricities prompted him to develop what amounts to an off-kilter new musical dialect, voluptuous yet spiky. A chorus of spectral wedding guests mimicking Fate as it knocks on the door in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony beggars belief.
Three women have brilliant parts to play. As Agnès, the daughter of Rodolphe’s father’s ancestral enemy, the square-jawed, porcelain soprano Vannina Santon evolves, like Shakespeare’s Juliet, from ingenue to heroine with a spine of steel. Jodie Devos, a second soprano, en travesti in a dark bob and bucket hat, sparkles as Arthur, Rodolphe’s frisky squire. Finally, there’s the blood-soaked nun herself. Undead in carmine lipstick and zombie contacts, the mezzo Marion Lebègue could terrorize by looks alone, but hers is a far-from-silent part. In tones both sumptuous and ghoulish, she ensnares like Circe and cries down vengeance like Medea.
Orbited by this arresting troika, dressed to kill in a biker’s black leather, the Rodolphe of Michael Spyres owns the stage. In an opera that runs a swift two hours and a quarter, his part goes on for days. Sweet of feature, sweet of tone, liquescent of phrase, Spyres suffers slings and arrows and flies on wings of rapture without tiring or ever outwearing his welcome, not even for a second.
La Nonne Sanglante is available for streaming on medici.tv
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii